The Illinois running back stable will be a little thicker this week with Josh McCray getting his first action since the season opener. The sophomore running back has been sidelined since suffering a knee injury in their blowout win over Wyoming.
After a breakout freshman campaign averaging nearly five yards per carry, totaling 549 yards, he was slated as the number two back behind Chase Brown. The Illini have a lot of depth in the backfield, but none are as complimentary to Brown as the 6’1″ 235lb bruiser. McCray should be a nice boost for an already confident Illinois offense.
How Does This Impact The Illini Moving Forward?
The Illinois offense has been getting better every week, but one area they’ve lacked all year is red zone offense. Ranking 96th out of 131 teams in scoring percent from inside the 20 yard line, this has been their most glaring weakness. A big part of that is not having a back that can simply bully his way into the end zone. Insert Josh McCray — A perfect combo of great field vision, nimbleness, and size built to excel in goal-to-go situations.
For all the talent Chase Brown possesses, and there is a lot of it, he is generally the workhorse getting you into the redzone. To ask him to also carry the load in those spots against a compressed defense determined to stop him is a lot, even for him. Outside of the potential within the redzone offense is the compliment McCray plays to Brown. It’s a thunder in lightning backfield now and the defenses will have to plan accordingly.
For Brown, who leads the nation in rushing attempts it will be a much welcomed reprieve. Not realistic to expect your running back to run the rock 30-40 times every game and maintain his explosiveness in the back half of the season. Even if its only 10 carries a game it will pay dividends by keeping their Heisman candidate fresh and wearing down defenses with McCray’s punishing running style.
Looking Forward: Josh McCray Can Solidify Himself As Back Of The Future
In regards to the health and depth of the program you have to think longterm beyond the season you’re in. 2023 has a very favorable schedule for the Illini giving them another chance at winning the west for potentially the second year in a row. Provided he can stay healthy, McCray returning with just under half the season remaining will give coach Brett Bielema a feel on if he can be the premier back in ’23 or if they should look to the transfer portal. That is of course assuming Chase Brown declares for the draft, as he should.
With Illinois 2023 commit Kaden Feagin also coming into the fold next year Illinois could potentially have a monstrous backfield perfectly built for Big Ten football. McCray should figure to be the focal point and veteran leader in another Illini offense that will figure to be full of new faces.
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